Standardized Tests Are Stressing Our Kids The F*ck Out

by Wendy Wisner
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It’s that time of year again, when my son’s classroom transforms into a test-prep center. Instead of focusing on their regular academic studies, my son’s teachers drill the students incessantly for the two state-mandated tests that are approaching. It’s not the teacher’s choice exactly—it is what the higher-ups demand. After all, the state tests are part of the way schools are “scored,” and even in some ways, how teachers are evaluated.

In New York state, where my son goes to school, these tests are given starting in third grade. That’s little 8- and 9-year-old kids taking long, grueling, stress-inducing tests. The tests are in the “common core” subjects of Math and English Language Arts. When my son was in third and fourth grade, each test lasted three days each, which basically meant that for two weeks in a row, the kids felt like all they did was take tests.

This year, as a result of tons of kids “opting out,” and public outcry about the tests, New York state has dropped the number of testing days to two for each subject. I guess that’s better than nothing, but it still pretty much sucks.

My son actually scores well on the tests. In fact, he almost always finishes early, and has to sit in his seat for hours doing nothing and being silent, which makes him even more tense and restless. One year he was allowed to read a book, but other years he just sat there, stewing.

When my son first started taking these tests, I didn’t realize how much they were stressing him out. I knew he was a good student and a good test-taker, so when he told me he really, really hated the state tests, I chalked it up to, “school just sucks sometimes.” But as the years have progressed, I have seen a pattern where his anxiety spikes for the month or so that his school is focused on these damn tests. He doesn’t sleep as well, and is more prone to bad dreams and insomnia.

Last night, I asked my son to summarize what stresses him out the most about the tests. “They make too much of a big deal of it, because they want their school to look good, not because they want their students to learn,” he said. “And during testing day, they act like it’s a matter of life and death.”

From the mouths of babes, I tell you. And doesn’t that just break your heart in two? I really don’t think our kids should have to shoulder that much stress at such young ages. And I know for a fact that he’s not the only child who stresses out about these tests. Testing-related stress is an epidemic facing kids across America.

In too many cases, the stress of these tests is overshadowing everything else, leaving our kids feeling apathetic and disengaged from school altogether. “Most kids I know are so anxious about the high-stakes consequences of these tests right now that they hate school,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in an interview with Harvard Political Review.

Now, you might say that all that stress would be “worth it” if it meant that kids actually learned something from the experience. But my son is also absolutely right that these standardized tests do little to advance kids’ academic skills. For example, a 2013 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Brown University found that even when students’ test scores improved as a result of test preparation, there was no improvement in the students’ cognitive abilities.

“Schools whose students have the highest gains on test scores do not produce similar gains in ‘fluid intelligence’ — the ability to analyze abstract problems and think logically,” explains MIT News, in a press release about the study. In addition to those skills, students saw no gains in the areas of “working memory capacity, speed of information processing, and ability to solve abstract problems.”

That’s pretty infuriating, if you ask me. I send my kids to school to learn, not to become experts on how to score well on multiple choice tests. I know that test-taking can’t exactly be avoided as kids get older (though I wish that even standardized tests for older students could be replaced with a better way to measure academic skills). Either way, I just don’t think young elementary school kids should be subject to this many test-taking drills—and most importantly, this much stress.

I know many students choose to opt out of these tests, and I think that’s a great option for some. In fact, I gave my son that choice in third grade when the testing started. But he vehemently refused, because all his friends were taking it, and he didn’t want to seem like the odd one out.

This year, however, when we discussed the option of opting out, I found out that the state tests would count for placement in my son’s middle school Gifted and Talented program. And because my son is interested in applying to that program, we decided to have him take the tests. It’s like there’s no freaking way out, and I hate it.

And it’s not just general test-taking anxiety like my son’s that these tests can trigger. Let’s not forget how tremendously stressful tests like these can be for students with learning disabilities or ADHD. Additionally, we all need to be aware of the fact that low-income schools automatically have the cards stacked against them because they lack the funding and resources to adequately prepare for these tests –and their students disproportionately suffer as a result.

My son will survive, and so will all our kids. But in the meantime, there is a rising level of hatred, dread, and disengagement I see in my son each year that he is subject to this ridiculous season of test-taking. I don’t think this is how school should be for our kids. There has to be another way to evaluate the progress of our students and our schools—one that actually assesses their intelligence, and also one that lifts their spirits rather than stresses them the fuck out and makes them despise school.

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